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The Four Ingredients for Breaking Barriers

Shirley Ann Jackson, Ph.D.
President, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Black History Month Scholarship Brunch
Faculty Club
University of California, San Diego

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Thank you, Chancellor Fox. It has been a delight to work with you over the years, and one of the attractions in coming here today was the opportunity to spend some time with you.

 (This reminds me of the time when Dr. Fox was President of North Carolina State University, and she and I talked about changing places for a day or a week in our respective presidential roles. This was on the occasion when I was at North Carolina State University to receive an honorary degree.)  I also thank the Gospel Choir for inspiring us with their beautiful music.

It is a delight to have been invited to speak here by Dr. Renee Barnette Terry, Dean of Student Affairs, who visited Rensselaer as an ACE fellow.

I am honored to join you as UCSD continues its celebration of Black History Month.

This is a celebration of the culture and community of African- Americans. But it also is a celebration of those who have helped our nation to understand and to recognize African-American contributions to our society, and a celebration of those who have expanded opportunity through their efforts, not just for African-Americans, but for all Americans. The doors they have opened have helped us as a society to appreciate diversity in many forms — in experience, in culture, in talent, and in perspective.

Your have as your theme “breaking barriers.” This implies a sledgehammer applied with vigor to a wall. Many like that image, but such walls — constructed to exclude unfairly — may be approached in other ways. Since I am not one who is fond of limits, I will explore more than just breaking barriers. One also can accomplish much by undermining a wall, going around it, leaping over it, or, perhaps, under the best of circumstances, working with others to create a ramp that turns the barrier into a launching pad for something new and wonderful.

How does one overcome barriers? I believe there are four key ingredients:

  • First, there must be preparation. The hard work of building capabilities cannot be ignored.
  • Second, character plays a role. The integrity and values that are put into action on a daily basis by the person who seeks to surmount barriers allows a person to deal effectively with the resistance that is inevitable.
  • Third, a barrier “breaker” must have something special, something to offer — such as a talent or perspective — that provides real benefits.
  • And fourth, opportunity must exist.

If one takes the well-known example of Jackie Robinson, this formula becomes clear. He broke the so-called “color barrier” of professional baseball because he worked hard to develop his skills. He had the depth of character to resist the shunning of other players and the barrage of insults from fans. He had wonderful ability and intelligence, put on dramatic display every time he stole a base. And, finally, he was there at a time when Branch Rickey was willing to create an opportunity for an African-American to play for the Brooklyn Dodgers.

I was born into a society that was inured in racially stereotypical and separation-oriented concepts and practices, constrained by structural limits. African-Americans in Washington, D.C., were segregated both by tradition and by law. These barriers had limited the opportunities available to the people I knew, including my parents. However, I must say that my family and my community did not give me a sense that I was limited. In fact, my mother provided a great example of persistence and commitment. My father always said to his children — to me — “aim for the stars so that you can reach the treetops, and at least you will get off the ground.”

My parents insisted that I work hard in school and supported my many interests. In particular, they helped me develop my natural curiosity and encouraged my determination to succeed. I excelled in school, unaware that segregation had created an uneven playing field.

Thanks to the work and sacrifice of many others, while I was in school, the Brown versus Board of Education decision of the U.S. Supreme Court forced the desegregation of the Washington, D.C. public schools. The barrier of segregation had been destroyed by others, and I was the beneficiary. Going to a desegregated school meant that more resources were available, and, significantly, I also came to see new career options. For the first time, I had, and became aware of, classmates whose parents were academics and scientists.

Another barrier, of quite a different sort, fell during those years. There often has been a resistance within American society to valuing science and technology, and those who work in these arenas. Because of the Soviet launch of the Sputnik Satellite, this barrier–which was both social and economic–went away. An enthusiasm for science and engineering swept the country, and it was felt that attracting students to these fields and supporting them were vital to national security. So, coursework was modified, the culture celebrated science and engineering, and the nation made a significant investment in scientific education and research.

This investment has paid off in multiples since that time, leading to breakthroughs in fundamental science, in medical advances, and in technologies that power the planet — technologies that we use every day, that shrink the world, that uplift people, that undergird democracy.

I point this out not just because it had a major impact on my life, but also because there is an important thing to remember regarding barriers. When barriers are overcome, they always can be rebuilt. Each generation needs to be aware of this possibility, and, to oppose the re-creation of barriers to opportunity and the injustice that follows.

The barrier to excellence within our nation in science, technology, engineering, and math has been both lowered and raised in my lifetime. Currently, that barrier is too high, both in terms of the social dismissal of “nerds and geeks,” and in terms of a lack of sufficient investment in these disciplines. This also is reflected in the continued under-participation of women and minorities in science and engineering. I am hopeful that we can reverse these trends.

Let me backtrack over a bit of personal history, which shows what can happen when family support, motivation and confidence, preparation and opportunity all come together. During my pre-college education, a tracking system was introduced in the public schools in Washington, D.C., to divide up classes based on aptitude. This was in the post-Brown decision period. Many people believed that this was an attempt at re-segregation of the public schools — through academic segregation. I will tell you that if the intent was to put me behind a wall, it failed. I did well on the test that determined who took accelerated classes. I leapt over that barrier because of the confidence I had, and because of my attention to my studies — good preparation.

By the end of high school, I had strongly developed my capabilities in science, and particularly in math. I also worked as a volunteer in the principal’s office, and, because of this, the boy’s vice principal (there were boys’ vice principals and girls’ vice principals in those days) came to know me. It was he who suggested I apply to MIT, because of my academic performance and standing. I spoke of opportunity earlier. In this case, the reason why I received this advice was because I, as a volunteer, was in the right place at the right time, in a situation where my abilities were recognized. Woody Allen famously said, “Half of success is showing up.” So, sometimes, we are able to create our own opportunities, but sometimes they occur even when we are not looking for them. But we always must take advantage of opportunity — however it arrives.

I applied and was accepted to MIT. I went off to that academic wonderland — financially supported by my family, my church, and by two major scholarships from the Martin Marietta Corporation and the Prince Hall Grand Masons (of Washington, D.C.). MIT presented new challenges. As you all know, the curriculum at that university, especially in a subject like physics, tests and stretches the best of students. The common practice for dealing with coursework is for students to work together in studying and in doing problem sets.

Now, I had no real problem with the academics. However, as one of only two African-American women in my freshman class (the first two to really attend and graduate from MIT), I found myself isolated. Other students would not even sit next to me in class. None joined me for meals in the cafeteria, and, if I joined them, they suddenly needed to be somewhere else. When it came to studying, my attempts to join study groups were met with the explicit directive to “go away.”

Now, of course this was hurtful — and I will speak to that momentarily — but it also put me at an academic disadvantage. I found out later that I was also excluded by some graduate students and faculty who made prior problem sets and past exams available for study by students they chose. I was forced to learn on my own, and to develop skills of concentration and persistence beyond my peers.

I believe that an element of the isolation came from inaccurate expectations on the part of people at MIT. This is a common barrier faced by minority students, sometimes women, even today. Now, I nonetheless did very well academically at MIT. But, many students do not perform well in school because of the low expectations of their teachers. It is damaging to be subject to distorted expectations of people that one is trying to learn from, and to be subject to stereotypical distortions in social situations. I have learned that one way to get caught behind a barrier is to let others define who you are.

Self-understanding and the determination not to be limited by what others expect is an essential part of being able to make the most of your talents and to take advantage of opportunities in life.

I did not let the academic disadvantages at MIT hold me back. I also was able to respond positively to the emotional impact of this isolation. I easily could have become resentful or even have been defeated — based on the pain that was inflicted — real pain that I felt. However, in life, you may not have control over what happens to you, but you always have control over how you choose to react. I countered the loneliness and sense of injustice in four ways:

  • First–and this really is due to an upbringing that insisted upon giving back — I worked at a local hospital in Boston as a volunteer. This provided an important perspective. I remember and took care of one beautiful blonde child, who was born without a nose and eyes–really, what we take for granted. He reminded me that we all have our burdens of life.
  • Second, I found a welcoming community in a sorority that I came to lead. It was for black women across several campuses in New England, and we had many activities that were filled with joy and community involvement. This was/is Delta Sigma Theta Sorority. I was the chapter president for two years.
  • Third, through that sorority, I developed friendships that allowed me to spend time in the Greater Boston area. I will admit that I skipped some days of classes so that I could spend time in the sanctuary of some of my soror’s homes.
  • And fourth, physics itself became a refuge. A refuge of the mind that so engaged my attention, that I could escape from some of the harshness and unfairness in the MIT environment.

Do you see what I mean about approaching barriers in variety of ways? The same approaches used by different people in different circumstances will not always meet with success. I think about the wonderful book by the Delaney sisters. Bessie attacked injustice and bigotry head-on. Sadie found more subtle ways to advance herself and others. Both had successes and failures in their lives–as we all do. But, because of who they were, their strategies were not interchangeable.

In any case, I was able to establish myself at MIT as a successful and promising student. I also came to realize that others should not have to face the same challenges that I had faced. So, with other African-American students, I cofounded the Black Students Union on the MIT campus — with the intent of making some changes, beginning with increasing the awareness of some of the inequities that existed. We faced resistance, and I can recall some heated conversations with the administration.

Ultimately, we were heard, and we began work to change the academic and social construct at MIT. This included a number of initiatives. Among them was an active effort to recruit more African-American students to MIT. We were able to move from having just a handful (three to five per class) to 57 in the freshman class entering in the fall of 1969. In addition, we created support for these students in the form of academic summer programs, camaraderie and study groups.

These represented real gains, and, though I do not believe the job at MIT is completed — even today. Together we were able, at the time, to build a ramp over the barriers, and to launch many successful careers of minority graduates of MIT.

I mentioned expectations earlier, and one expectation within the African-American community at MIT presented a problem for me. After dedicating much time during my early graduate school years toward supporting other students, I chose to study and do research elsewhere one summer (at the University of Colorado at Boulder). This sort of work is necessary for advancement in a scientific career, but some of those who were part of the minority-focused program accused me of being a traitor for not continuing my work with them. This was hurtful, but I did not let it hold me back. I left to do the study and research.

Again, self-understanding and willingness, if necessary, to disappoint others can be key to becoming someone who takes on barriers and succeeds. If I had ignored the needs of my scientific career, I would not have been able to continue to overcome barriers, to build a successful scientific career, or to use my talents and capabilities in government service, at the NRC, or as President today of Rensselaer, as a member of President Obama’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST), as a member of the Boards of Directors of major corporations, as a member of and major contributor to a number of public policy organizations and think-tanks.

These important roles enable me to influence science, technology and public policy — nationally and globally, to raise awareness of the importance of science and technology for the national and larger public good, and to create opportunities in these fields for others.

Every generation faces its own challenges. They are unique to that generation. Sometimes, they are novel, and yet, sometimes, the barriers overcome by previous generations rise again and need to be addressed. The formula for taking on these challenges remains the same: preparation plus character plus “something special” plus recognizing and taking advantage when the window of opportunity opens.

This formula allows one to make a difference in justice, compassion, service, and in solving the many challenges our world faces. I encourage all of you, and especially the students here, to work hard, to act with integrity, to understand what you have to offer, and to keep your eyes open for those opportunities to overcome barriers for yourselves or for others who are being held back.

Here at the University of California, San Diego, you can find both a history of breaking barriers and wonderful examples of people who have risen to and overcome challenge. An example is my own sister, Dr. Barbara Avery, Vice President for Student Affairs and Dean of Students at Occidental College – who started here, was a working mother, yet earned her Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees here at UCSD, and went on to earn a Doctorate in Education from Pepperdine University. The rest, as they say, is history.

I have every confidence that those of you in this room will continue to make diversity and inclusion ever more accepted and celebrated in the University, in American society, and in the world. This perspective, put into action, with hard work and opportunity, will enrich all people — both in terms of success in the world and in terms of personal development. Understand that what you are born into does not define all of what you are. Social class and gender and race are by birth — success is by choice.

Thank you for allowing me to join with you today, to share my story, and to be part of your celebration of Black History Month.

Source citations are available from the division of Strategic Communications and External Relations, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Statistical data contained herein were factually accurate at the time it was delivered. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute assumes no duty to change it to reflect new developments.

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